PERHAPS more than any place on the globe, Somalia is demonstrating that the end of dictatorship doesn't necessarily mean the start of something better. More than a year after the ouster of strong man Mohammed Siad Barre, that East African land has descended into chaos. Two main factions are in a tense stand-off over the capital, Mogadishu. Meanwhile, armed men, under no one's control, loot and terrorize.
Food relief organized by the United Nations has been blocked by the combatants' worries over whose hands the aid will fall into. Only a few international organizations remain in the country, carrying out heroic work in overtaxed hospitals.
Mediating efforts by regional groups like the Organization for African Unity, the Arab League, and the Islamic Conference Organization have been stymied. Hopes for a peaceful resolution are scant.
Yet those hopes can't be abandoned in Somalia any more than in Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, Cambodia, or other places where ethnic and factional strife has tattered civil society.
Diplomatic initiatives need to be backed by a substantial UN commitment to monitor and enforce the current wobbly cease-fire. The UN Security Council last Friday agreed to send 50 military observers to Somalia to monitor the truce. That's a start. The UN presence may need beefing up if it's to play a meaningful role in reducing the conflict. The stage has to be set for talks between interim President Mohammed Ali Mahdi and Gen. Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the primary disputants in the Mogadishu. Leaders in th e successionist north and various clan chieftains also have to be drawn into negotiations.
If human anguish is the measure of a crisis, Somalia's warrants greater priority than it has gotten so far. Some estimates put those killed since last November at 30,000. A quarter of a million have no food. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled their homes, many pouring into drought-striken neighbors like Kenya. Humanitarian relief should be pursued even if it's targeted at pockets of relative stability.
At the UN, the United States - which counted Somalia an ally in cold-war battles over the Horn of Africa - has rejected a major peace effort there. The reason is money. The UN is already undertaking expensive operations in Cambodia and Yugoslavia, and the US traditionally picks up 30 percent of such costs.
Perhaps that percentage should be adjusted, with added money for Somalia coming from wealthy Islamic states like Saudi Arabia. But that formula has to be worked out quickly. Thousands of Somalis are running out of time.